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Do I Have to Follow Co-Workers on Social Media?

A guide to the new rules for online behavior at work.

by Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick
March 23, 2021 | Work
Photo of woman holding a smart phone with an inquisitive look on her face, rewire, social media at work
Credit: Wayhome Studio // Adobe

In the late aughts, my parents made a plea for my employability. 

They attempted to steer me away from creative fields, urged me to buy concealer to cover up my tattoos, and, in their most vocal cries, waxed on about making sure photos of me misbehaving online were deleted. They feared the ramifications of my social media carelessness.

Now, in the early 2020s, these issues are mostly non-existent: Creativity is a survival skill, having a tattoo is no longer uncommon or maligned, and some employers won't hire you if they can't find you online

This last item is most interesting, as the world has largely shifted online during the pandemic.

Gone are the days of "Your online identity will make you unemployable" and "Social media can hurt your career," and here are stories on how to navigate friending your boss.

Our digital lives have come a long way, simultaneously becoming more relaxed and more sophisticated. In a climate where you may have only "hung out" with your co-workers on video calls, social media extends the personal connection. 

But, do you have to follow co-workers? What if your co-workers post too much about their food or repeatedly share unsavory political views or post revealing photos of themselves? Do you still have to follow-for-follow?

While in the throes of a new era of digital behavior, let's examine our professional and personal lives online to offer best practices for online social interaction.

Manage the digital work-life balance

Whether you follow thousands or have a highly curated digital follow list, what contemporary at-work social media behavior gets at is managing the boundaries of the public and the private.

Casey Pierce, professor of information at the University of Michigan, explains that following a co-worker tears down professional veneers and can affect working relationships. 

"That connection on social media now affords co-workers glimpses into someone's personal life," Pierce said. 

For more forward-thinking and digital jobs, this may not be a problem — but this blurring of public and private requires a familiarity with your job's organizational culture, the nature of your work, professional norms, and the power dynamics between manager and associates.

When the public-private line is crossed, a worker may feel the need to act differently online and off. 

"Some people may feel burdened having to code-switch or present a professional version of themselves during work hours, but do not want to perform as a professional on their personal social media," Pierce said. 

Whether one code-switches or not, the implications are that you may view your co-worker differently and vice versa. 

Once you've found that someone likes, say, taking selfies with their hamster on their head, you might only ever see them with a hamster on their head. This is complicated by how people perform themselves online, making it easy for the inauthentic or ironic to be interpreted as serious.

"This incomplete representation of ourselves can influence what co-workers think of one another from casual workplace gossip to important hiring and promotion decisions," Pierce said.

Yet, friending co-workers may be necessary right now. 

"As many workers shift to work-from-home environments, using personal social media has become a way for co-workers to connect and socialize without having the physical workplace," Pierce said. 

Whether temporary or not, our digital awkwardness with co-workers might be another manifestation of a new normal.

Keep etiquette in mind and embrace private accounts

In a recent workplace column, author Roxane Gay urged those in overly online workspaces to set digital boundaries with co-workers. 

If you have a social media philosophy, abide by it — and respect how others act online. What this gets at is digital etiquette and, from the New York Times to Mashable, the philosophy is less "Don't post that photo of yourself smoking!" and more "Don't deep like a co-worker's profile."

Scott Steinberg, author and CEO of BIZDEV, examines our working relationships in terms of etiquette. Many of his beliefs relate to being mindful of one's digital church and state separation and, as Gay also said, being upfront about your digital philosophy. 

"There's not a polite way to say you don't want to follow someone," Steinberg said. 

Illustration of hand holding smart phone with a friend request screen, rewire, social media at work
If you have a social media philosophy, abide by it — and respect how others act online.  |  Credit: Antonio Francois // Adobe

He urges people to articulate their views on social media: If you don't want to follow someone, say that you appreciate the offer but you like to keep your digital spaces private or that you only follow news organizations — or whatever follow and friending philosophy you maintain.

You shouldn't lie or ignore a co-worker: If someone asks for a follow and you rebuff them, they're going to remember or wonder why you don't like them. 

"Find a happy medium," Steinberg said. 

Create specific accounts that are only for co-workers, while a parallel private account is your safe space to post whatever you want. Embrace the mute button, following but sidelining someone in your feed. 

Know that people are trying to connect with you because they literally like you in real life. Know your alternatives too: If a follow from someone you casually like will prevent being pressured to share a phone number or grab a coffee, a follow may be your best bet.

And always remember boundaries – and empathy. 

"I didn't receive much training on social media etiquette," Steinberg said. "I don't think anyone did." 

Not everyone uses a platform in the same way and these sorts of cultural differences may manifest online. If someone does go for the deep like, give them a break. 

"The key is to be more human," Steinberg said. "You never know what's going on behind the scenes."

Yes, digital behavior can affect your job

Even if you work in social media, digital behavior is on your own time — until a co-worker sees it. Whether you're posting photos of your cat or photos to promote your OnlyFans, that's not your employer's business until it is.

Eric Meyer, partner in the employment practice group at FisherBroyles, finds that the smallest moments online can have the biggest impacts. 

"The issue is what happens if you follow a co-worker and you see that the co-worker has made a racist or xenophobic post," Meyer said. "You can unfriend them — but what if you're offended? How much of that is a work problem?"

Enter the legal stickiness of online interactions affecting working life. 

Meyer explains that, while an employer cannot monitor every post, posts made on company devices or during working hours or even seen by a co-worker may violate a company's anti-harassment policy. 

Even if a co-worker posts a politically unsavory opinion at 11 p.m. on a private account, but a co-worker sees it at 11 a.m. the next day, their reporting to the powers that be works all the same. 

The ball is in an employer's court: Now that they've been notified of someone's bad acting, will they extend discipline? If the employer — or overly-friendly manager who follows everyone they manage — does nothing but the employee acts out again, the company is now liable.

"People have the right to free speech," Meyer said. "But you also have to accept the consequences of your free speech." 

Meyer notes that most states practice at-will employment, meaning an employee or employer can terminate this relationship as they see fit. If what you posted this morning or in 2008 circulates the office because it is so antithetical to current company culture, you might need to look for another job.

Legally, the advice that my parents gave holds true today: Don't post anything you wouldn't want your boss to share with the entire company. 

This may not feel the same way given the blur between online and offline life but it has proven to be a modern truth from "Crunk Bear" to Gina Carano

As far as that co-worker who likes all of your posts or who posts too much about their child? There's nothing technically wrong with that. Unless minor annoyances violate a company's harassment policy, this comes with the territory of digital interactions.

When all else fails, do what Meyer urges everyone to remember: "Use your best judgement online."

Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick
Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick is a writer based in Los Angeles. He loves dogs, champagne and short shorts.
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